D&D Class Roles

D&D (and Pathfinder) put a lot of weight into the roles each character class falls into, a fact which became clearly apparent when running a lot of it. 4th got a lot of flak for its WoW-style character role archetypes (striker, defender, controller, etc.), but to be honest, these divisions have existed since the original Red Box and 1st Edition AD&D, if not before. They just weren’t always as noticeable, not being bolded out in the rules and all. So for the next week or so I’ll be going in-depth looking at all the D&D classes from a 3.5/Pathfinder perspective, at their roles and how balanced they are.

The Well-Balanced Group

Running Legacy of Fire, and listening to my friends’ tales of Kingmaker, Runelords, and Carrion Crown, got me thinking about class roles. In my Legacy game and Keving’s Runelords game, both parties lacked some of the core classes, and ended up having other classes performing their roles. Mine was heavily redundant on monks and divine/martial and martial/skirmisher hybrids. There’s also been an abundance of APG classes, partly because of the newness and partly because some (summoner, inquisitor) can become powerful without any real optimization work.

Anyways, the point being, the more I run d20, the more I realize that class role balance is crucial for a lengthy D&D campaign. Having the druid as a frontline fighter, and lacking a true wizard, really threw things into an interesting new angle… it was almost like running Iron Heroes. (Not that they had much issues, later on, but it’s vaguely frightening to realize the challenges they overcame would have been that much easier with access to 7th-level arcane spells.) The party managed to crash through everything thrown at them, breaking down the standard 3.x “fighters suck, caster supremacy” argument, but there were some situations where a power-built warrior and an arcane caster would have helped.

Part of the 4th-edition hate is because its class role terminology—defender, controller, striker, leader—sounds a lot like mumorpuger roles,  particularly WoW; the authors say that it’s to push new players to fill each role in the party. Ironically, those roles have always existed in D&D, they just weren’t bolded out as “roles,” and are constructs of Gygax’s wargame background: what else are mages but artillery, leaving clerics as support,warriors as infantry, and thieves as skirmishers. Two editions of AD&D rammed that home.

Without AD&D and its basic class roles, I doubt WoW would have such roles for 4th to “rip off.” It’s not like they naturally occur in fiction. Point me at a case where you see someone filling a role other than warrior/defender/tank: Conan, or Fafhrd and the Mouser, even Cugel the Clever don’t have anyone to fill their support roles, and even alternate between them. Even the Lord of the Rings, the posterboy for Appendix N team-based fiction, doesn’t have distinguishable party roles: the hobbits cower, Gandalf gives advice, and the four other guys wade into the thick of combat. Traditional party roles were a construct in order to let everyone at the table participate and feel needed, even if they were only the healbot or trapfinder.

Since none of the D&D/Pathfinder games I’ve been apart of in recent memory have filled all of those roles simultaneously, I can understand the push to codify them as a base part of the game. What I love about 3.5 is that its classes aren’t tied to a single role build, and many exist outside of them; thus, it feels too restrictive to limit a class to a single role. But without having every role filled in the party, encounters feel off-balanced, and can range into the “too hard” or the “too easy” pretty quick.

The Balance of Power

Not only is balancing class roles an issue, there’s also the balance of the individual classes. D&D has always had some weird balance issues between classes: magic-users start the game as glass cannons, and end up with the ability to drop some pretty powerful stuff at 20th level. Comparatively, warriors are generally well-rounded and competitive through the low- and mid-level “sweet spot,” but at higher levels, the ability to hit more often and use more weapons can’t compare to the casters’ ability to fly, insta-kill enemies, and so forth.

This list is an overall decent ranking of the various 3.5 classes, though it’s lost a bit in the Pathfinder changes. It also assumes everything is perfectly chosen on the player’s side, hence why sorcerer is rated so high; I’ve never liked the class because of its lack of versatility. The ability to be lazy and not prepare spells just doesn’t compare to the wizard’s freedom to prepare fire spells when going up against trolls.

Note that the tier rankings don’t take optimization levels into account: Matt made a straightforward cleric, and ended up outshined by the TWF blender rogue, outside of roleplaying. (Few people can out roleplay Matt.) I can’t give him too much crap, he did miss half the campaign due to moving back and forth, but it strikes me as funny given the general consensus the CoDzilla is the power build for 3.5. (Well, just behind arcane casters at high levels and in Pathfinder.)

Is this even a problem with other games?

Well, no, it isn’t. Starting in the ’80s and ’90s, a lot of games switched to the skills-based method, and went with sample archetypes you could build and modify yourself rather than hammered-into-stone classes. Shadowrun, Star Wars d6, Deadlands, even today with CthulhuTech and Eclipse Phase. Other games kept classes, but de-emphasized them. Cyberpunk 2020 had classes, but all that did was open up a single class skill, such as Combat Sense (the ability to go first in combat) for Solos (“fighters”).

White Wolf included “classes” in the form of its affiliations, which were more about what stereotype the character fit, though roles were still around here and there; Werewolf’s Auspices, and Exalted’s aspects/castes, for example. It’s worth noting that by the simple virtue of being skills-based instead of class-based, a character could still perform another character’s role depending on how they spent their points.

Therein lies the rub: by giving players the flexibility to make their own characters, things became even more reliant on having the players make builds that supported one another’s strengths. Party roles will always be there, even if they’re enforced by the game or not. What skills-based games do is free up the restrictions, allowing a player to fill the roles (or parts thereof) that they want to. I don’t recall forcing players in my skill-based games to stick to a single archetype, and yet they’ve always managed to come up with characters who fill enough different roles that everyone has something to do.

I guess I’m spoiled by skills-based games and the flexibility to make any character new and interesting, as the D&D class-based method is showing its age. (I still get a laugh from all the OSR grognards who gripe about d20’s “detailed” skills system being a terrible, inferior direction to take the game… compared to non-weapon proficiencies, I guess.) It’s one of the many reasons why the class/level system is an outmoded design; while it speeds up construction and play by following tropes and archetypes, it lacks the freeform nature that comes with most modern skills-based games. Of course, going full into the skills-based camp leaves us with things like Rolemaster.


2 thoughts on “D&D Class Roles

  1. Hm, I think the benefit to make a character quick, and give the player a role right off the bat would still be a major benefit, especially as a beginner.

    I know even the relatively simple D&D took quite a while to fully come to grasp with what things meant. I don’t think it was until the third or fourth game that I was starting to get a feel for what all these numbers even meant, or what I could do with them.

    Though, with computers the character creation may be a bit easier than it was previously, or at least complex systems aren’t quite as big a drag as they used to be.

    1. “Hm, I think the benefit to make a character quick, and give the player a role right off the bat would still be a major benefit, especially as a beginner.” — that’s a very valid point. I think it’s worth pointing out that most of those build your own character, skills-based games I listed off also include lists of archetypes/templates, which are what most players I have build characters from, keeping the same simple “pick your general role” style that D&D classes have.

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